May 13: Winston Churchill and Fridtjof Nansen

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I don’t know if Winston Churchill and Fridtjof Nansen (about whom I’ve written before here and here) ever knew each other or knew of each other.  I’ve never yet come across a reference to the other in either of their writings.  But then again, I’ve only scratched the surface of their respective output—both left prodigious written records.

Nevertheless, I find it hard to believe that they were not at least aware of each other, if not personally acquainted.  They both loomed so large over their respective stages in Europe that it’s almost impossible to think they hadn’t somehow crossed paths.

While Churchill may have missed the 1897 lecture Nansen (thirteen years his senior) gave to the Royal Geographical Society following his attempt at the North Pole (Winston was serving with the British Army in India at the time), they were both in London in 1906, when Fridtjof Nansen was appointed newly-independent Norway’s first ambassador to Great Britain and Churchill was re-elected to Parliament.   Both men were active during World War I; Nansen negotiating with the Wilson Administration for liberalized food trade; Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty

After World War I ended, Fridtjof Nansen was one of the most prominent figures in the newly created League of Nations, an organization strongly supported by Churchill.  With the approach of World War II, Churchill participated in the Focus Group, a loosely-allied group of British politicians alive to the threat of fascist Germany. Philip Noel-Baker, an old League friend of Fridtjof’s, was part of this select group.

Whether or not the two were acquainted, personally or by reputation, May 13th was a critical anniversary in both their lives.

Fridtjof Nansen

On May 13, 1930, Fridtjof Nansen passed away, age 68.   As I have explained in an earlier post, while the medical report may have listed the cause of death as heart failure, in reality I believe it was simply a case of his having done more work than most ten men.  If there was one word that encapsulated his personality, it was forward (in Norwegian the word is fram which happened to be the name of the ship he built for his expedition to the North Pole).  As he once explained, there should be no thought or plan of retreat: “Then one loses no time in looking behind, when one should have quite enough to do in looking ahead—then there is no chance for you or your men but forward.  You have to do or die!”

Winston Churchill

Exactly 10 years later, on May 13, 1940, that same philosophy inspired Churchill’s famous “blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech to the House of Commons.  At the time of the speech, Churchill had been Prime Minister for all of three days, assuming the position “on the eve of the gravest crisis which any British Government ever faced,” in the words of one historian.  Austria had been annexed; Czechoslovakia occupied; Poland crushed; Denmark overrun; Holland would capitulate 2 days later; Belgium in 18 more; France was slightly more than a month away from surrendering; Norway was fighting gallantly against impossible odds.  Many in Great Britain advocated negotiating with Hitler.

Nevertheless, Churchill marked out his own position unmistakably.  After informing his countrymen that he had nothing to offer them but blood, toil, tears and sweat, Churchill continued:

“We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind.   We have before us many, many long months of struggle and suffering.  You ask, what is our policy?  I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.  That is our policy.  You ask, what is our aim?  I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival.”

As one historian described Churchill’s spellbinding speech, and its effect on both his country and the worldwide audience that it was also intended for: “If this was Britain’s ‘finest hour,’ it was also Winston’s.”

No doubt if Fridtjof Nansen were still alive, he would have wholeheartedly agreed.

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